Impact by design

Nonprofit’s e-outreach platform matches STEM professionals with students

To become a mentor, sign up at www.curiositymachine.org. To get involved with curriculum development, contact Andrew Collins or Tara Chklovski.

Tara Chklovski came to the U.S. from India for graduate school wanting to build airplanes inspired by birds. While she was working on her Ph.D. in aerospace engineering at the University of Southern California, she was surprised not to see the same drive to enter science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – STEM fields – in the U.S. as in her home country. Having realized that she wanted to solve this social problem instead of physics problems of flight, Chklovski founded the science-education nonprofit Iridescent.

Iridescent reaches out to K–12 students in underserved communities. Its flagship program is the Curiosity Machine, an online science-education platform that provides engineering design projects for students to build with the help of mentors who are STEM professionals.

Each project begins with a video in which a STEM professional describes his or her job and career path, explains essential concepts of his or her work, and introduces a design challenge: Build X so that it can accomplish Y. The students plan and execute their designs using common household objects, such as rubber bands and cardboard, and post their prototypes on the Curiosity Machine website. Mentors then correspond with the students online and help them troubleshoot or improve what they have built.

Because mentoring is done online, this outreach avenue is flexible and can be worked into the mentor’s schedule. “I can mentor at any time as long as I have a computer and Internet connection,” says Christian Marks, a mentor and a Ph.D. student in molecular physiology and biophysics at Vanderbilt University. “I pick one day a week to claim projects and work on those after my work day is done.”

While most of the projects focus on engineering and physics concepts, the mentors do not have to be experts in the field. Stephanie Agbu, a mentor and Ph.D. student in developmental genetics at Cornell University, says, “I draw on physics concepts that I learned in high school and college courses to help me mentor.”

Students most often need help “solving problems they encounter when building their project designs,” Agbu explains. “They may not fully understand the reasoning behind certain aspects of their design, so they do not always yield a functional unit. In this case, I try to help them think of modifications that will enhance their design.”

Agbu adds, “The students also need help with thinking of multiple ways to carry out their projects. If a student successfully completes a design, I follow up with questions to help them think of another way they could have successfully done the project or how particular characteristics of their design would change if they were to modify one aspect.”

The Curiosity Machine also offers STEM professionals the opportunity to get involved in curriculum development. They can come up with new design challenges based on their research. Although most of the projects on the website are engineering-related, Iridescent is interested in partnering with scientists to broaden its range of topics. Iridescent’s staff helps translate complex research into easily understandable ideas and creates a video to capture the concepts of the challenge.

Iridescent also fosters collaboration with underserved communities by training educators, librarians and parents. In fact, the Curiosity Machine is used in a variety of ways in communities. The Chicago and Los Angeles public libraries run it as an afterschool program. In a five-week Curiosity Course, students go to the site, learn about the challenge, build their contraptions and then return home to work on their projects with their online mentors. The Curiosity Machine can be entirely home-based as well: Students start and work on their projects at home with their parents.

Chklovski says the idea for Curiosity Machine came from the model for Teach for America, in which recent college graduates teach in communities with limited access to high-quality education. Teach for America’s model, Chklovski says, “was interesting to me because it’s life changing” for the teachers. She wanted to provide similar opportunities that were enriching for both the community members and the STEM professionals.

Curiosity Machine mentors say they have found the experience fulfilling. “I encourage children to think critically about the tasks given to them and how they can solve problems they might encounter,” Agbu says. “These are two important skills for engineers and scientists, so I am happy that I can help them develop these skills at an early age.”

Marks says, “My favorite thing about Curiosity Machine is how excited students are about their projects. I love seeing the students succeed, and I am really impressed by their ideas.”

Maggie Kuo Maggie Kuo is an intern at ASBMB Today and a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University.